How to Plan a Conference Agenda and Schedule Speakers
Wanting to stage a business conference and knowing how to approach planning the cavalcade of logistics to carry off such a complex event are two very different things. Delivering a large-scale professional gathering entails recruiting dynamic speakers, creating compelling agendas, and tracking the minutiae that can make or break a multifaceted professional gathering.
It may sound daunting and complicated, but those who regularly stage large professional gatherings say the effort is worth it. Inviting people together for luncheons, workshops, and symposiums has innumerable upsides, and the return on investment is worth the weeks and months of work or, in some cases, the year-long effort required to pull off these business events.
A conference brings stakeholders together to share, learn, network, hear from industry leaders, and emerge feeling energized, motivated, and connected. It may provide exposure and visibility for vendors who otherwise silently support everyday business needs. Business gatherings are also an opportunity to showcase the host city as a destination and nexus for economics and industry.
For those looking to wade into the space of staging business gatherings, local leaders in this space are ready with tips, tricks, and advice to make these events a success.
“If somebody wants to share what they’ve done in the past, what works and what doesn’t, be a sponge and soak it all up… Do your research and reach out to others who are organizing similar events.”
“Bringing people together and having dialogue in person can have incredible ripple effects,” says Jackson Blackwell, managing director at Arctic Encounter. “Just start something and see what it will lead to.”
Arctic Encounter is an international public policy conference founded in 2013 by Rachel Kallander, with the first event in 2014.
“It’s gone from a few dozen speakers that first year to this past year, our largest Arctic Encounter ever, in which we had over 200 speakers, fifty sessions, and 1,000 attendees from over two dozen countries,” Blackwell says. “It’s grown considerably, which we’re really proud of as an Alaska-based team. What we’ve found is that Alaska is this brand that translates around the world, and people want to come visit and share what their countries are working on.”
One of the few Alaska venues large enough to host such an event is the Dena’ina Civic and Convention center in downtown Anchorage.
Every January and August, like clockwork, hundreds of attendees fill the Dena’ina Center for two other annual standouts: the economic forecasts from the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC).
“For us there’s no other venue in town that could support our events from start to finish,” says Ashley Ebnet, AEDC development manager. “We host the largest economic sit-down luncheons in the North America region, according to the International Economic Development Council.”
Ebnet oversees AEDC’s January Economic Forecast as well as August’s 3-Year Outlook Luncheon. Both luncheons run at an efficient 1 hour, 30 minutes in length. Attendance has rebounded post-pandemic to an expected crowd of around 1,500 people per event.
AEDC’s luncheons are on many people’s calendars as a not-to-miss event, and while President and CEO Bill Popp generally presents the economic reports, the touchstone event also promises keynote and guest speakers.
“I think that the community really enjoys being back together, networking, and seeing one another,” Ebnet says. “They really appreciate the insight into our city, how we’re doing, and where we’re going. They appreciate the perspective, with all the reporting and analytics, and Bill Popp’s knowledge about industry. They take this information, and we hope they use it to make business decisions.”
As part of the 2023 Arctic Encounter agenda, the Far North Fashion Show drew some 1,200 people to the Anchorage Museum.
“We’re constantly searching for a speaker who is relevant, entertaining, and motivating, and who fits the presentation or what’s going on in our community or economy.”
One Thing After Another
AEDC luncheon agendas follow a template: an announcement from the board chair is followed by Popp’s economic data and reflections, and then several guest speakers follow. Those could be elected officials, such as the Anchorage mayor or legislators, or economists or business sector leaders, with anywhere from five to ten people seated on stage during the event, Ebnet says.
This anticipated format means efficiencies in planning, but the template also presents challenges for keeping the program fresh and exciting for returning guests—a challenge Ebnet finds energizing.
“Every day is different, and I get to wear many hats and do a variety of things, which I enjoy,” she says. “Given that our industry is evolving so quickly, I’m always looking for new, innovative concepts and approaches to engage attendees, vendors, and sponsors.”
A key to planning agendas is listening to one’s audience and using that to build on future events, she says.
“I just make sure I’m networking, listening to people, and gathering feedback to improve our events so that everything runs smoothly from check-in through the luncheon,” Ebnet says.
It’s important that speakers connect to the event’s themes and messages, Ebnet says. For example, at the January 2023 luncheon, AEDC presented its Choose Anchorage initiative, a framework to revitalize the city. The program included insightful remarks from TIP Strategies, the consulting firm that worked on the project.
“They were extremely insightful and engaging,” Ebnet says. “We’re constantly searching for a speaker who is relevant, entertaining, and motivating, and who fits the presentation or what’s going on in our community or economy.”
Catherine Sullivan, events and communications manager for Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Alaska, says she leans heavily on the AGC audience for input in creating valuable speaker rosters and high-quality agendas.
“This isn’t just the AGC team creating this,” Sullivan says. “We work with our membership and line up speakers well in advance.”
The agenda for the Associated General Contractors of Alaska annual conference includes mental health, safety, and workforce recruitment panels alongside agency updates and project reports.
Members of Associated General Contractors of Alaska compete against each other on bid days, but they come together for the annual conference at The Hotel Captain Cook, where chapter president Alicia Amberg presents awards for contributions to the group.
Competitors and Comrades
The annual AGC conference is a multi-day event in November that draws some 500 people to The Hotel Captain Cook. The event features a variety of professional development tracks, a popular awards luncheon, a vendor trade show, and evening networking events, all of it capped off with a fun and fancy Saturday night dinner gala attended by about 640 people.
Tickets to the gala sell out within 10 minutes of availability.
“So, very clearly, our members and community see a lot of value in this event, and we’re so proud of it,” Sullivan says. “It’s an event our members have really come to enjoy after a busy construction season. I think it’s a testament to how unparalleled this event is for our industry. It’s a great networking event for the commercial construction industry across the state.”
AGC hosts other events throughout the year, from clay shoots to golf tournaments to luncheons. But the conference is the largest, most complex, and most sustained gathering of members as it unfolds across several days.
“We really aim to make sure this is an event where people can feel connected to the industry,” Sullivan says. “They’re getting great information to take back to their team. We’re really proud of that. There’s a big bang for the buck there.”
AGC’s membership is a prime example of a statewide network that wouldn’t have an opportunity to come together if not for the annual conference—which is notable given the volume of work that’s relationship-based, with companies enlisting various contractors, subcontractors, and vendors.
“Our members can oftentimes be competitors on bid days, but when they collectively come together for the greater good of the construction industry, it’s just really wonderful to see the camaraderie that happens,” she says. “It is so important for our members to have those connections. In construction especially, facilitating the opportunity for them to reestablish those partnerships and make new partnerships to help grow their business and help them build a better Alaska is something we’re really proud to help with.”
Sullivan credits an industrious and dedicated conference committee and subcommittees for building substance and meaning into their annual conference. “They spend months curating a speakers lineup,” she says.
Go-to topics include safety, agency updates, and contractor reports. At the most recent conference, topics on mental health and workforce recruitment and retention were well attended.
There can be roadblocks, Sullivan says, in recruiting speakers. Travel and weather can pose issues. “But I think there’s this great benefit of Alaska being a bucket-list destination for people,” she says. “You can work with the speaker so they can make the most out of their visit here. That can really help.”
The lure of visiting Alaska is an asset that Arctic Encounter has capitalized on, as well. Blackwell says thought-leaders and policy-makers who specialize in Arctic issues have a vested interest in experiencing Alaska.
“By and large, those who work in the climate and Arctic space are interested in extreme environments and environmental change and witnessing that firsthand,” Blackwell says. “We’ve leaned into that brand.”
“Our members can oftentimes be competitors on bid days, but when they collectively come together for the greater good of the construction industry, it’s just really wonderful to see the camaraderie that happens.”
‘Not Your Traditional Slide Deck’
As Arctic Encounter has grown and gained global attention, Blackwell and Kallander have worked with their volunteers, board members, and staff to aim for high-level speakers and subject matter experts to address a breadth of topics.
“We really prioritize that it’s not your traditional slide deck on stage where people talk for 30 minutes, but it’s an interactive discussion led by our moderators,” Blackwell says. “We try to identify leaders from Alaska and leaders internationally and put them on stage together. Something can be said about getting new voices on stage.”
Ultimately, Blackwell says, Arctic Encounter staff and volunteers remain open to ideas and input. “We’re interested in what will capture people’s attention,” he says. “To ensure every year that we are increasing diversity and unique opinions, we work with partners in Alaska and around the world to solicit recommendations. We encourage interested individuals to submit speaker and content ideas through a form on our website and will continue to lean on our partners to help us produce the most dynamic event possible.”
The 2023 Arctic Encounter included, for the third time, the Far North Fashion Show. Held at the Anchorage Museum, it showcased Indigenous people, celebrated the rich culture of the Arctic, continued to build out a new component of the symposium, and drew some 1,200 people to the event.
Visit Anchorage honored Arctic Encounter for the economic impact from its 2023 event, estimated at $804,656.
“Alaska is unique,” Blackwell says. “We know it. Some from other countries might not know it. So if it [Arctic Encounter] is a pitch on why someone from Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe should travel to Anchorage for the symposium, we’re hopeful this event encourages them to attend.”
Arctic Encounter has grown from a few dozen speakers in 2014 to more than 200 speakers and 1,000 attendees at this year’s event.
Inviting 200 speakers to Arctic Encounter is just the first step toward getting their voices heard; the most important step, though, is hiring a skilled audio-video contractor.
What Works and What Doesn’t
Scheduling can be difficult because popular speakers are often booked months in advance, says Ebnet. Additionally, some speakers can demand a substantial speaking fee, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
“We are grateful to our speaker sponsors for helping us in covering these costs and bringing these amazing speakers to Anchorage,” says Ebnet, crediting Weidner, Premera Blue Cross, GCI, and Alaska Airlines as longtime supporters of AEDC events.
Other tips? “Do your homework and create a solid marketing strategy,” she says. “And make sure you always thank your sponsors and follow through with your sponsorship benefits—whether that means a social media post or having them on your website, that’s a huge thing.”
Blackwell also encourages follow-up to carry on momentum after a large event. He keeps others’ business cards by his computer as visual prompts to follow up with contacts.
Above all, those in charge of delivering some of Anchorage’s most visible and noteworthy professional development events agree on this advice: ask others for guidance.
“If somebody wants to share what they’ve done in the past, what works and what doesn’t, be a sponge and soak it all up,” Ebnet says. “Do your research and reach out to others who are organizing similar events.”
Sullivan agrees. “There are people who have been doing this so long, and there is very little you’ll see that people haven’t already worked through,” she says, “so reaching out to someone who’s been in your shoes before is very beneficial.”